Phoenix: An Auschwitz survivor searching for her betraying husband

Phoenix: An Auschwitz survivor searching for her betraying husband

Fiona Green is a features writer

Nelly (Nina Hoss )

By Fiona Leckerman

Nelly walks down a narrow alley way, the camera tracks behind her and slowly the Phoenix club comes into view, a red glow surrounding it. Here she is reunited with her musician husband Jonny, except that when Jonny looks at her, he only sees a woman who bares an unnerving resemblance to his wife Nelly.

This is a pivotal moment in director Christain Petzold’s film noir-esq Phoenix, set in a post war Berlin and centred on Nelly, who returns to her hometown with her face blooded and bandaged, a survivor of Auschwitz she is physically broken and all that remains is the hope that she will find her husband Jonny. 

Jewish Agency employee and old friend Lene escorts Nelly to a plastic surgeon to reconstructs her face, as she recovers she searches her mirrored reflection for any remnants of her old self but only memories of her life with Jonny remain.

In spite of Lene’s warnings, Nelly ventures out into the dangerous Berlin night and begins the quest to find her lost love. 

Nelly searching through the ruins of Berlin

Once found it transpires that if she were alive her great fortune would be returned, motivated by Nelly’s resemblance to his wife, Jonny embarks upon transforming her into his presumed dead wife, in doing so securing her fortune for himself.

Nelly goes along with this plan whilst harbouring the innocent hope that Jonny will realise that the impostor he has created is the real Nelly and his wife. 

Phoenix, is a bleak anti love story set in a post war world where the faith that kept Nelly alive in the death camp shifts to sadness and displacement.

Berlin, only ever shown at night and early dawn, is depicted as a mournful insalubrious place. The camera lingers in the shadows emphasising the feeling of misplaced identity.


There is complete emptiness in the stillness and ghostly nature of Nelly, played with a haunting detachment by Nina Hoss encapsulated best by the long wanting looks that Nelly casts on Jonny, willing him to recognise her.

Director Christian Petold
Director Christian Petold

Had they been as in love as the film implies it is slightly unbelievable that Jonny doesn’t catch on sooner, it is not until he sees her dressed in Nelly’s red dress and perfectly fitting shoes that a wave of recognition crosses his face, however be it fear, shock or disbelief he does not allow himself to entertain the possibility.  

As the narrative unravels,  so does the past and in returning to the home they shared we discover that Jonny had hid Nelly from the Nazi’s in their lake house, she was subsequently found and taken away.

Questions start to arise about the part that Jonny played in her discovery and as Nelly begins to find out the truth, she too questions whether she should reveal her true self to him.

The final scene is a testament to Petzold’s superb direction, a heart breaking crescendo that marks Phoenix as a powerful and moving piece of cinema that touches on the uncomfortable revelation that some truths cannot be taken at face value.

Phoenix opened on 8 May and is being shown in selected cinemas.   


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